Book Review

Boris Sandler occupies an uncomfortable position in the world of Yiddish literature. He was born in the Soviet Union after the Second World War. As such, behind him lies the legacy of the destroyed world of European Jews, most of whom were Yiddish speakers. In front of him lies a diminishing audience of Yiddish readers, for Yiddish is a language facing extinction in all but the ultra-religious Hasidic world. In Red Shoes for Rachel: Three Novellas, Sandler writes in Yiddish about the dislocation of Jewish people and the challenge of recovery from this trauma.

Language is not the only challenge that Sandler faces. He is also caught between two or more states of existence. He writes in a language and idiom of another time and place, even while he and his characters inhabit multiple worlds, including the former Soviet Union, the United States, and the State of Israel. The common threads in these works are disaster and dislocation, followed by people’s sense of a permanent displacement. For Sandler’s characters, exile is not a simple phenomenon. It is multilayered: mental, spiritual, and physical. Home is easily lost and never secured.

All these themes are at work in the novella Halfway Down the Road Back to You. The elderly Sarah lives alone in Israel, and she is hyperconscious of her physical safety. At the beginning of the story, she slices white bread, part of her compulsive desire to hide and preserve food. She is brimming with recollections: she remembers twenty years after the Second World War when her daughter forced her to apply for German reparations for her losses and suffering during the Holocaust. In that memory, her daughter applies to an archive in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, for a record of her mother’s detention as required for the Israeli government’s documentation. Proof of her incarceration in a concentration camp arrives. Sarah is pained that a Jewish Israeli bureaucrat demands a document of her activities during the war, just as a German bureaucrat on November 15, 1941 entered her name in the camp commandant’s office ledger as having “received a bundle of wood.” For Sarah, such documentation diminishes the power of what it means to be a Holocaust survivor. Sandler writes:

It didn’t make sense to her that after so many years the document that confirmed the bitter truth of her fate was lying around . . . on shelves, squeezed between other faded, yellowed papers and notes.

Sarah’s sense of loss is so immense that old documents are but a hollow token next to her memory.

All the while, Sarah awaits a new disaster. Her children have long since left Israel to pursue opportunities abroad, so she is alone. Sarah has little left but the hope that her “children’s children would never have to live through what she had survived.” She plans for the next catastrophe. In her apartment is a room sealed against an attack, stocked with food and gas masks. This sealed room reminds her of the secret room her parents retained, which they referred to as the “you-shouldn’t-need-it room,” a secret passage in their Ukrainian house where they stored supplies and hid, for a time, from the Germans. For Sarah, the past, present and future bond into a formidable wall of fear and dread. Her present physical security can’t dispel her inner exile.

Rachel, in Red Shoes for Rachel, has a similar sense of displacement, although she was born in New York City after the war. As a child of Holocaust survivors, she is constantly reminded that “if she had been born three months earlier, her birthplace would have been Eschwege, Germany, where her parents were in a displaced persons camp.” When she was young, Rachel could never say the name of the place correctly, which was just as well, as her parents usually called it “there.”

Rachel absorbs her parents’ dread of “there,” and as a result, inherits their sense of exile and displacement. After living for years in Israel, she returns to Brighton Beach to care for her ailing mother. Rachel, American born, lives her life as a refugee—she has no possessions, and little to show for her young life. In keeping with Sandler’s theme of layered and textured exile, Rachel meets Yasha, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Like the other recently arrived immigrants from Russia, Yasha is disoriented and alone. To Rachel, “he didn’t look like a man who slept on soft pillows and put on a fresh shirt every morning . . . her womanly instincts told her that . . . he was just an unfortunate person, a luckless fellow.”

After tender preliminaries, Rachel and this luckless man begin a love affair. Both are battered by experience, torn so apart that they are easily united by love. Rachel comes to realize that for her and Yasha, Jewish existence is an inescapable trap, for “all Jews . . . were at all times divided into two categories—those who always dreamed of moving to America and those who had already done so but never stopped yearning for the old country.” Despite her overwhelming pessimism, Rachel loves Yasha, and the future they can forge together has a far stronger pull than the past. Her last thought, looking over the moonlit water of Coney Island is: “Tomorrow will be a beautiful day.”

Sandler’s stories express a dual sense of reality: this is a dark world where people fail to heal from their traumas; at the same time, there is the sense that tomorrow may be a brighter day. Sandler clearly marks this as a challenge for Jewish people; despite a legacy of death, dislocation, and trauma, tomorrow will come and Jewish people will continually face the need to create the hope for growth and healing.

About the Reviewer

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York, with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, will be published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2018.